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Arab Cup 2021: No football fervor in Qatar

Olaf Jansen Doha
December 1, 2021

With less than a year to go until the start of the World Cup in Qatar, the Arab Cup is providing a test run. A visit to Doha shows there is still a lot of work to do — not least when it comes to the atmosphere.

The Arab Cup trophy — there isn't too much interest in the tournamentImage: Nikku/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

Pedestrians have drawn the short straw in Qatar these days. The Qatari capital resembles one massive building site; heaps of earth everywhere, new streets being tarmacked, hotel after hotel springing out of the stony ground.

Among the new apartment complexes and shopping malls, diggers and lorries block the traffic, which tries its best to weave its way through the dusty chaos. Good luck if you're on foot. Best to take the bus. Or a taxi. Or use the brand new metro.

In Qatar, individual business has to take a back seat; the World Cup is coming to town. Or rather, to one town: Doha, where eight brand new football stadiums have been built for the December 2022 tournament, complete with the latest technology and mod-cons. Now, all the secondary infrastructure needs to be completed, and time is running out.

The dress rehearsal has already begun, with the Arab Cup — a revamped replacement for the discontinued Confederations Cup which Germany won ahead of Russia 2018 — taking place in the city from November 30 until December 18. The tournament features 16 teams from the Arab world competing in six World Cup venues, a first test to see if the small Emirate on the Persian Gulf is really capable of hosting a global super-event.

There's certainly no shortage of money; investments on this scale are no problem for the sheikhs in a country where abundant oil and gas reserves guarantee a steady stream of billions of dollars. The big question is whether everything will run smoothly enough for Qatar to further increase its presence on the world stage.

A building site in Doha, Qatar
Doha in the buildup to the World Cup is a massive building siteImage: Olaf Jansen

No time for football

To do this, Qatar has recruited hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from the developing world to man the building sites and operate the diggers which dominate the cityscape. And yet, most of the workers from Bangladesh, India, Tibet and Pakistan have never heard of the Arab Cup.

"Nope," mumbles one man, his face obscured by a hat, scarf and sunglasses. "What's the Arab Cup? Never heard of it." The man next to him also shakes his head.

A stroll through the city inevitably takes one down to the Doha Corniche, the seven-kilometer long promenade along Doha Bay, where the old dhows are moored. They once served as fishing boats or as platforms for pearl diving. Today, they are tourist attractions offering boat tours for visitors. But business is hardly booming.

"Corona," explains one young dhow owner by the name of Noor, who has at least heard of the Arab Cup. "I actually like Argentinian football most of all, but I've got a ticket for Qatar's second group game [vs. Oman] on Friday."

In general though, it comes as little surprise that the workers aren't particularly interested. Later in the afternoon, when the sun begins to set, thousands can be seen shuffling exhausted onto busses which will transport them back to their accommodation, such as it is. There, they'll try and have something to eat and drink and recover their strength ahead of the next day's work.

Who has time to bother with football?

Dhow operator Noor in Doha, Qatar
Dhow operator Noor runs boat tours for tourists and has a ticket for an Arab Cup gameImage: Olaf Jansen

Where's your famous atmosphere?

Not many, it seems, not even on the opening day, which includes hosts Qatar against neighbors Bahrain. No fans on the streets, no jerseys, scarves or flags, no big screens. Not even little screens, come to that. Just the odd mobile phone advert featuring footballers on the side of the street.

In addition to the estimated 2.5 million migrant workers, Qatar is also home to around 300,000 "locals," many of them well-off by birth. Even for these well-heeled residents, football is a more a private affair, a hobby which takes place on television.

"People watch at home with their families," reports one German contractor, who works for a consortium which manages hotels, restaurants and theme parks.

But not pubs; there's no pub culture in Qatar, where life is dominated by a strict form of Islam, Wahhabism. With alcohol banned and extravagant parties frowned upon, social highlights include dignified evenings in a restaurant or perhaps a chat in a cafe over tea or shisha. Those who actually go to a football stadium expect VIP seats and service; standing terraces aren't part of the plan.

"At the recent cup final [Al-Saad 1-1 Al-Rayyan, the opening match at the Al-Thumama Stadium, with Al-Saad winning on penalties], there were only a few hundred people in the stadium," says the contractor. "And some only wanted to watch it on television [in the VIP lounge] anyway."

"Stadium 974" - one of the brand new stadiums in Doha, Qatar.
"Stadium 974" - one of the brand new stadiums in Doha, Qatar.Image: Reuters

Arab football tradition

And yet the Arab world has a historic and fanatical football culture.

From Tunisia and Morocco, across North Africa to Egypt and up into Jordan and Lebanon, spectacular derbies take place in sold-out stadiums amid raucous atmospheres. Football is deeply rooted in society; the clubs represent different regions, different strands of religion or different socio-political classes.

But in Qatar? The 18 clubs in the so-called "Qatar Stars League" play almost exclusively in Doha and, while the aforementioned locals might express an interest in one team or another, the legions of migrant workers have no affiliations, and matches in Qatar's top-flight frequently attract fewer fans than European amateur games.

And yet, one scene in a shopping mall in the Al Qassar district gives reason to hope.

At a little stall with a sign advertising the Arab Cup, a significant queue of people has formed. Two volunteers in FIFA t-shirts, visibly surprised by the interest, are busy with cameras, laptops and printers, hurriedly issuing personalized tickets for upcoming games.

Maybe the interest in football is growing after all?